The first man I met at the 67th Cannes Film Festival was a fifty-something producer who insisted upon fetching me champagne I hadn’t asked for. Night was falling and La Croisette, Cannes’ swankiest stretch of beachfront restaurants and boutiques and five-star hotels, sparkled like a celebrity’s loaned diamond necklace beneath us. I was there for the release of a film. Industry C-Listers jostled around a purple-lit stripe of pool bisecting the roof while a DJ played American bar mitzvah music in the corner. I briefly fantasized about how far I could finance one of my own films with the astronomical costs of this extremely shitty party.
The fifty-something kept talking to me. “So, he said, “actress or model?”
“I write,” I said.
I was on the last leg of a three-month film internship based in Paris. I’d never been to Cannes before. I had been looking forward to meeting other people who loved what I loved, debating the films in competition, and, less realistically, finding Jane Campion, charming the pants off of her, and convincing her to become my mentor.
Now, night one, and I was looking forward to going home.
“You write,” the producer said, throwing around his broad shoulders in his expensive suit. “What’s the name of your feature?”
I told him I’d only written shorts so far.
“Tell me, love,” he said, poking another glass of champagne into my hand, “what exactly is the point of a short film?”
This guy was the first I met, but far from the last. There are lots of different kinds of men to meet at Cannes, if only because there are so many of them. During the two weeks of the festival, clogging the pretty little Southern France streets among the tourists and well-dressed drug dealers, are lots of big and important men doing big and important business. They are the walking, talking, mouth-breathing embodiment of current industry gender stats. Here are some from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film (which are US-centric – though, for better or worse, so is the international film industry.)
In 23 high-profile US film festivals from 2013-2014, women comprised 26% of individuals working in influential roles behind the camera (directors, writers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers), while they filled 16% of those roles in the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2013. Last year, of the States’ biggest films, 6% were directed by women. Throw foreign films into the top 250, and that number jumps to an exhilarating 8%.
But statistics are boring! No one wants to talk about them. Men in film least of all.
Though that’s not always the case. I met a smiley young American director at Le Petit Majestic, a cheap-by-Cannes-standards bar behind the Grand Hotel frequently packed to the gills with overconfident nobodies. This guy was all about numbers. “Weren’t there, like, 2,000 films submitted to Cannes and only, like, a hundred of them by women? Maybe women just don’t want this enough.”
Surely that must be it. Cannes is the most prestigious international film festival in the world, and why would women have any interest in prestige? After pouring blood, sweat, tears, and terrifying amounts of money into their projects, women directors must just poke their films into drawers somewhere. Or maybe some really do want a shot, but they’re just so ditzy they forget to keep up with the deadlines. At any rate, women trying their chances at Cannes in dismal numbers (specifically, they helmed seven percent of 1,800 submissions) must have nothing to do with the industry in which they work and everything to do with their own shortcomings. Who knows or cares which one exactly – there are so many to choose from!
Cannes men aren’t entirely blind to the efforts of women, however. The stereotype goes that young, beautiful, empty-headed actresses flock to the festival and try sidling up alongside deep-pocketed male execs to get their big break.
“Sad, really,” I overheard a British producer say to another British producer over drinks at the Grand one night. They were watching a happy flock of professionally unidentifiable women walk by while laughing with incriminating lightheartedness. “Girls think they can saunter about in little skirts and they’ll become the next ScarJo. You see them in the morning leaving the big hotels, holding their heels, devastated – but of course the Room Service Method will get them nowhere. Doesn’t keep them from trying, though.”
He turned to me. “So, are you an actress?”
Oh, I wish. Mad props to anybody who can become somebody else, in front of a camera or otherwise. Acting is a power of persuasion I simply don’t possess.
Cannes is big on the power of persuasion.
“I can convince you of anything in thirty seconds,” one distributor told me. This was back at the rooftop party, which had since gotten less shitty with the introduction of macaroon towers. For the next thirty minutes, I would continually try to bail on the distributor and get to the macaroons.
He raised his eyebrows, ready for the kicker. “Would you ever kill a person?”
I could have said, “Yes, of course, under extreme circumstances.” I could have said, “Yes, you, happily, if you do not please leave me to my macaroons.” Instead I said, “No.”
This guy was not looking for inspiring discourse, but someone – preferably, a pretty girl – upon whom to prop his own intellectual superiority. I was a decorative coat rack.
“Okay,” he said, shaking his head, leaning in close, and putting his hand on the small of my back. “You’re in a room with three Islamic terrorists. There’s a screen showing a room full of little kids on the wall, and there’s a red button…”
If I wasn’t coat-racking for festival men, I might have tried the role of caring sympathizer. Men in film have it rough. If they are able to make a good living from filmmaking without actually being big Hollywood players, chances are they’re selling their delicate artistic souls to Big Business. Corporations who hire them for commercial production, they’ll tell you, are “raping” them. In order to afford their true callings – making movies with explosions, boobs, etc – they have to “prostitute” themselves to the likes of IBM and General Mills. I, for one, would not wish the traumatizing (paid) task of creating a Hamburger Helper ad upon even my worst enemy.
Let’s jump cut from the high-rolling rooftop to the bowels of the basement. Beneath the Grand Palais, and its groaning weight of the famous and rich, is the Cannes Short Film Corner: there, passionate and dangerously optimistic independent filmmakers pay obscene fees to play their films in very small rooms to audiences of practically no one. At five every day there’s a happy hour with free beer during which directors over-compliment each other. I was game for the Short Film Corner.
But even in my little oasis, away from the beach and the bullshit, among lots of variously-gendered people who were, refreshingly, not terrible, Cannes men lurked in bearded and beanied disguise. I met one who was friendly and engaging and seemed to care about my opinions on things. We started talking about trends. He contributed, with the swagger of someone who has gotten too comfortable in a conversation too quickly: “Seems like with the hold China and similar countries are starting to have on the market, there’s a decreasing demand for women directors.”
So maybe that’s it, then, why we aren’t seeing women making waves in Hollywood, or Cannes, or on the rest of the festival circuit. In a world with more than three billion women walking around on it, there’s not a demand for stories about what exactly is up with all of them, anyway.
What I learned, in sum, from my first time in Cannes (besides packing only pants next time, as inspired by one of my superiors yelling “where’s the rest of your skirt” at me from across a crowded party), is there’s lots of potential explanations for gender disparity in film. The reasons range from women directors not wanting it enough, to audiences not wanting it enough from them.
And, finally, it isn’t men’s business to muck with the order of things. I got clued into this final bit during a drunken blowout with the president of a small film festival at six in the morning, less than 24 hours before my flight home, when I had finally gotten bored enough with myself to retire the coat rack. I began to ask questions.
“I have no idea how many women’s films are in my festival,” the big important president kept repeating loudly (red-faced, spittle, the whole deal.) “Knowing would be an insult to both men and women. I’m in it for the art. That’s all I care about. You want me to accept a shittier film just because a woman made it?”
So listen up, women directors: your shit could poison the artistic integrity of the whole sacred filmic enterprise. Be warned. You don’t want to bear that burden.
Shannon is a queer feminist writer of fiction and media criticism. Raised in Connecticut, she has just moved from Paris to New York City. She'll let you know how that goes.